ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Saturday raised their flag over Baghouz and declared the end of the Islamic State in the village, a day after the White House announced the battle was over.
“Baghouz village has been fully liberated, SDF made victory against ISIS,” Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF press center announced on Twitter early on Saturday.
“We deliver this victory to our martyrs’ families and injured fighters, without their sacrifice this victory was not done. We congratulate the world with the elimination of the so-called Caliphate,” he said.
In a later tweet, Bali continued on to say that the SDF was declaring the “total elimination of [the] so-called caliphate and 100 [percent] territorial defeat of ISIS. On this unique day, we commemorate thousands of martyrs whose efforts made the victory possible.”
The announcement marks the end of the Islamic State group’s self-declared caliphate from June 2014, which at its height controlled an area comparable to the size of Britain, with a population estimated at 12 million people under its control.
US president Donald Trump on Friday had already announced that all remaining Islamic State territory in Syria had been retaken, but SDF officials said there was still sporadic fighting between remaining Islamic State fighters refusing to surrender.
The US-led coalition campaign, which was launched in 2014 to counter the jihadist group, has spanned five years and two US presidencies. The war has affected hundreds of thousands, with many still suffering from the atrocities committed by the Islamic State.
Indeed, the Yezidis suffered the most under the Islamic State as the group committed genocide against the ethnoreligious minority group. Thousands of their men were killed in Sinjar (Shingal) in August 2014 and thousands more of their women were taken as sex slaves and hostages.
Several children and women were rescued in Baghouz by the SDF, but many are still missing.
The Kurds, both in Iraq and Syria, were the main forces that resisted the Islamic State after it first emerged in 2014. The group attacked both the Kurds in offensives on the Kurdistan Region in August 2014 and on Kobani, in northern Syria, in September 2014. With the help of the US-led coalition, they managed to resist the advance of the Islamic State.
“May this new year bring peace and stability for Kurds in both countries. We all owe you a significant debt of gratitude,” Brett McGurk, the former envoy for the Coalition against ISIS, tweeted on the Kurdish New Year, March 21, in recognition of the sacrifices made by the Kurds.
The final push was initially put on hold earlier this month by the US-led coalition and the SDF in an attempt to spare civilian lives and hostages that were being held captive by the resisting militants.
The SDF military council in February had already discussed the future of northeastern Syria after Baghouz, expecting the battle to be over soon. The battle for Baghouz lasted six months.
The sheer number of people emerging out of Baghouz surprised the US-led coalition and the SDF forces, slowing down the operation.
As of March 20, 70,480 people reside in the al-Hawl camp, according to UN statistics, a camp designed to hold 20,000 people.
Despite the Islamic State losing its last remaining enclave, the location of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the phantom-like leader of the group with a $25 million US bounty on his head, is unknown.
“The fact that we didn’t capture any high-ranking ISIS members means they were elsewhere,” Bali said in February.
The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political arm of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) which spearheads the SDF, said in a statement on Friday that this victory was a gift from the Kurdish-led SDF and the local administration in northeastern Syria to the people of Belgium, Europe, and the free world.
“However, the war against Daesh has not finished yet, and its threat is still present through its sleeper cells in Syria and Europe. The greatest danger lies in the mindset and ideology of Daesh that must be fought by all means,” the PYD warned.
It also called on the international community to stop possible Turkish threats to Syrian Kurdistan after Baghouz.
Although the territorial collapse of the Islamic State group is now final, SDF officials warn that the organization still poses a significant security threat, especially in recently liberated areas.
Last month, the SDF affirmed the focus after Baghouz will be on countering sleeper cells that are still active in previously held Islamic State areas.
“We, as the SDF, think that dealing with and finishing off the Islamic State militarily was the easy step, but now comes the more challenging phase,” Bali told Kurdistan 24 in February.
According to Nicholas A. Heras, a Middle East security analyst at the Center for a New American Security, “The end of the Baghouz battle represents the beginning of the more treacherous campaign to prevent the reemergence of ISIS.”
Editing by Nadia Riva